Blind Muscat spent a day in his version of Heaven last Thursday--in an auditorium at UC Davis listening to lectures about grapes and wine. The occasion was the annual Varietal Focus session, this year devoted to Iberian varieties--dozens of 'em--that are rapidly getting more attention in the import market and with wineries looking for something different to grow and bottle. It was an excellent program, some interesting wines, and a glimpse of what will surely be a growth segment in the wine marketplace.
If you want to kick off a program on a wine topic many folks may think of as obscure, and want somebody who knows it inside and out, who better than Darrell Corti, longtime Sacramento grocer, wine merchant, and world-class authority on just about everything humans put in their mouths, or ever have. Corti offered a set of personal reflections on his encounters with the wines of Iberia over 40 years, including tasting notes from luncheons in the 1960s and excerpts from books written over a century ago. And wearing his wine merchant hat, he warned the attending producers not to price themselves out of the market with these new wines--in other words. not to repeat the disastrous folly that surrounded the short-lived California Sangiovese boomlet and bustlet of a few years back. Other speakers made the same point, and we shall see if anyone was listening.
Deborah Golino of the Davis/USDA Foundation Plant Services repository, which imports, cleans up, and releases new grapevine clones from Iberia and elsewhere, ran through their holdings and procedures. She and other speakers had some fun with the maze of local and regional names for many of these grape varieties, which she likened to the Tower of Babel. The grape the French call Mourvedre is named after a town in Spain, but that Mourvedre lies nowhere near the places where the Spanish grow what they call Monastrell. The Spanish Mencia grape, the darling variety behind the trendy wines from Bierzo, gets called Jaen in Portugal; back in Spain, however, Jaen (with a very different pronunciation of the "J") is both a different grape variety altogether and the name of a town far, far away from the Mencia-growing region. And there are more synonyms for Tempranillo that you can shake a pruned cane at.
The program then moved to two international experts, grape breeder/nurseryman/grower Jorge Boehm from Portugal and Jesus Yuste, viticulture researcher from Spain, walking the crowd through major and some minor varieties, their idiosyncrasies, their uses, and most important, their degree of adaptability. Both split their grapes into those like Tempranillo that seem to do well in a lot of different situations--much like Syrah, Cabernet and Chardonnay--and others--similar to Pinot Noir--that only thrive under certain conditions, particularly climate parameters.
After lunch, we got Glenn McCourty, the Mendocino-Lake County extension adviser, commenting on how his many years of experiments with Mediterranean varieties in those areas have worked out; Markus Bokisch from Lodi describing farming practices for keeping various vines happy in his region; and Earl Jones from Abacella Vineyards in Oregon's Umpqua Valley, a Tempranillo fanatic of the first order and the producer of what may be the best Tempranillo in the US, for my money.
Part of what's wonderful about being a wine professional is that you get to start drinking at 8:30 in the morning, and it's your job, not your drinking problem. We began our day with a white Arinto from Bucelas, a small, once-prominent DO near Lisbon, which Darrell Corti explained was about to be paved over to make room for expansion of the Lisbon airport. Perfectly tasty wine, though a younger vintage (this was a 2004) might have shown more exuberance.
And what's a day without tasting an entirely new grape variety? In this case, it was Rufete, a rather flavorful, sturdy Spanish red from Cambrico in Salamanca. Worth the trip to Davis right there.
For producers in the US, these will remain niche grapes for at least a while, aimed at wine clubs, tasting room sales, and the production of "Port" from the same grapes the Portuguese use. In the import market, more and more Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Monastrell, Albarino, Verdejo, Verdelho, and so on--maybe even the occasional Rufete--will likely be showing up on a wine shop shelf near you.
If this is the future, I definitely plan to keep drinking.